The Road to Apostasy

April 2, 2015

I have been thinking about the process of losing one’s faith and leaving the church. I’ve been told countless times that people who leave the church have done things the wrong way; it’s not usually a huge, obvious mistake, but a series of seemingly small and insignificant missteps along the way, that lead a person down the road to apostasy.

I thought of someone I’m familiar with (I’ll call him “H”) who has shared how he began this difficult journey and eventually found himself outside the church. As much as possible, I’ll try to let him speak for himself, in his own words. I readily acknowledge that I don’t see the mistakes, the missteps, that led H to lose faith, but I’m hoping–expecting, really–that some active members of the church will enlighten me and help me understand where he went wrong and how he could have salvaged his faith.

H did not grow up a member of the church, but when he was a young adult, he began to feel there was something missing in his life, and a chance encounter with members led him to investigate the church. Although he initially found the scriptures “impenetrable,” he felt the church offered answers to his questions and could help him to “actually handle life, and your problems, and not have them handle you.”

Joining the church gave H a feeling of belonging and a sense of purpose. “I did experience gains,” he says, and he felt he was able to let go of earlier guilt, feeling forgiven for “things I’d done as a teenager that I didn’t feel good about. I think I did, in some ways, become a better person. I did develop more empathy for others.”

H poured himself into church activity, becoming a leader and example to others. But some things about the church nagged at him because they just didn’t seem right. He heard rumors about the church’s origins and some disturbing stories about the church’s founder, whom he had come to revere. But he dismissed these concerns as fabrications from apostates. “There’s always disgruntled folks who say all sorts of things,” he thought. As H saw other church members testify of the blessings they had received, he wondered why he wasn’t seeing the same blessings in his own life. “Maybe there is something,” he told himself, “and I’m just missing it.”

Throughout his time in the church, he was always taught that either it was all true, or it was a lie. Although he struggled to believe the founding narratives of the church, he was told that, if what the church founder and witnesses had testified of had “never existed,” the church must be “based on a lie.” He decided that he would take a more liberal approach to his religion and live the church’s teachings on his own terms. He would “pick and choose” the parts of the religion he wanted to believe and disregard those things he didn’t like.

For a number of years, H continued in his journey of faith, but eventually, things came to a head in 2008, when H was horrified at the church’s public support for Proposition 8, the anti-gay marriage proposition in California. When he voiced his concerns to his church leaders, they downplayed the church’s role and urged him to drop the matter. A church member told him, “The church is not political. We all have tons of friends and relatives who are gay. … It’s not the church’s issue.” He knew that wasn’t true.

His frustration with the church led him to search the Internet for information about the church. Looking at unauthorized sources made him feel a little nervous, as he had always been taught that the only trustworthy information about the church was what the church published itself. His research uncovered a lot of troubling information, most of which would be familiar to my readers. But what struck him the most was seeing a high-ranking church leader tell an obvious untruth to a television interviewer. He met with “apostates” who had left the church, and many of them were angry, saying they felt “betrayed” by the church.

Feeling that his world was unraveling, H reached out to church leaders, who dismissed his concerns as being unfounded and urged him to rededicate himself to increased church activity to renew his flagging faith. After agonizing over his choices, H eventually realized that he could no longer be a member of the church in good conscience. He wrote a long letter explaining his decision and his reasons for making it, and sent it to his closest friends and leaders in the church. The response was unexpected. They insisted that he had listened to the wrong people and that he should have shared his concerns only with his church leaders, who could help him. Instead, he had listened to apostates and those who opposed the church, who were obviously lying. Besides, if he “genuinely wanted to change” the church, they told him, he “should stay within the organization, not quit; certainly, going public was not helpful.”

Although they tried to help him stay in the church, his friends and leaders reluctantly accepted his decision, but insisted that he keep his reasons for leaving to himself. Discussing what he had found out about the church could “damage” the lives of the faithful, and he had no right to do that. He told his friends about the information he had found on the Internet, urging them to see for themselves, but they were not willing to listen to information presented by enemies of the church. One friend told him that looking at those web sites was “like reading ‘Mein Kampf’ if you wanted to know something about the Jewish religion.”

Leaving the church has cost H relationships with some friends and even some family members. He has a keen sense of loss: “If you identify yourself with something for so long, and suddenly you think of yourself as not that thing, it leaves a bit of space.” But he is philosophical about it. “It’s not really the sense of a loss of community. Those people who walked away from me were never really my friends.”

What did H do wrong?


The Divide in Nauvoo

April 1, 2015

I can’t recommend enough this blog post from my friend Roger Launius:

Nauvoo and the Myth of Mormonism’s Persecuted Innocence

One quote stood out to me:

This mythic shift, the transmutation of the dissenters from innocent to evil, justified any and all acts of aggression on the part of the church against them. Of course, the tragic irony in all this is that the myth of innocence prevented the Mormons from learning from this history. So they reenacted it, with themselves in the role of the aggressors.

Growing up, I heard the tales of murderous mobs attacking the Saints in Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois, and it never occurred to me that there was anything to the story beyond religious bigotry and hatred. But there is always another side to every story, and as Roger explains, the “mobs” and their supporters adopted their own myth of patriotically standing up for liberty against despotism. It’s a common human thought process: you protect yourself by seeing the divide between you and your enemies in the starkest terms possible. That way, you don’t have to listen to their concerns, let alone consider those concerns legitimate in any way.

But in doing so, you don’t learn from history, and you tend to repeat it. I’m reminded of the Arab-Israeli conflict, in which both sides have so successfully dehumanized and delegitimized the other that the conflict seems destined to continue in an endless cycle of repeated history.


More on Joseph Smith’s “Near-Death Experience”

March 20, 2015
I mentioned in my earlier post that I had stolen a good chunk of information about the account of Charles Stoddard regarding William Law’s alleged shooting attempt against Joseph Smith in 1844. This same friend, who is an active member of the LDS church, sent me some further information, so I thought I would share it here.
The Stoddard tale is an interesting bit of folklore. As has been noted, there are two versions of the story: the spurious Sarah Stoddard journal and an affidavit sworn by Charles Stoddard’s granddaughter and great-grandaughter in 1949 (included in Mark L. McConkie’s compilation, Remembering Joseph). [The affidavit can be read here.]

So, the story as told in the Deseret News seems to be derived from the one from this affidavit, which was made some 30 years after the story’s origin (if my friend is correct that the story dates from after 1918).

If you subtract the gun play, Charles Stoddard’s story has certain similarities to Dennison Lott Harris’s story, which was recounted in an article called “Conspiracy of Nauvoo” that appeared in the April 1884 issue of The Contributor (the New Era of its day). The author of the piece, Horace Cummings, said that he heard Harris relate the story in 1883 and was so impressed by it that he wrote it down afterward in his journal. Later, after learning that The Contributor was offering a prize for a Christmas story, he “extended [his] journal account somewhat and wrote [the] article in competition for the prize.”

In the story, Harris and his friend, Robert Scott, attend secret meetings at William Law’s house as spies for Joseph Smith. There are three meetings. Before the third meeting, Joseph warns them not to enter into any secret oaths. Then, as the account has it, “after a pause of some moments, he added: ‘Boys, this will be their last meeting, and they may shed your blood, but I hardly think they will, as you are so young. If they do, I will be a lion in their path! Don’t flinch. If you have to die; die like men; you will be martyrs to the cause, and your crowns can be no greater.'” Sure enough, at the meeting, everyone is required to swear an oath dedicating themselves to Joseph Smith’s destruction. Everyone takes the oath but the two boys. The enraged mob clamors for their blood: they must take the oath or be killed. When they refuse again, the Law brothers and Austin Cowles frog-march them down to the cellar to slit their throats. Then, at the last moment, someone in the crowd yells—”as if by Divine interposition”—to halt the proceedings. The boys are reluctantly given a reprieve. They will be allowed to leave but must never speak of what they have seen or they will be killed on sight. Joseph, meanwhile, fearing for the boys’ safety, concealed himself along the river bank with one of his bodyguards, just out of sight of Law’s men. There’s a joyful reunion and the boys relate everything they had seen and heard to the grateful Prophet. Cummings’s article closes with the declaration that it “is a true recital of events that actually transpired.” This affirmation is somewhat undercut, however, by the postscript: “That which is elevating and ennobling in its tendency is necessarily true.”

So, it’s a nice story, but even the originator seems to take it with a grain of salt.

So according to Mormon folklore, the Law-Higbee-Foster et al. conspiracy against Joseph Smith was discovered by one or more courageous youths. Contemporary records, however, tell a different story. On 24 March 1844, Wilford Woodruff recorded in his journal the following remarks made by the Prophet:

“I have been informed by two gentleman that a conspiricy is got up in this place for the purpose of taking the life of President Joseph Smith his family and all the Smith family & the heads of the Church. One of the gentleman will give his name to the public & the other wishes it to be hid for the present. They will both testify to it on oath & make an affidavit upon it. The names of the persons revealed at the head of the conspiracy are as follows: (Chancy Higby Dr Foster, Mr Jackson, Wm. & Wilson Law). And the lies that Higby has hatched up as a foundation to work upon is, he says that I had mens heads Cut off in Missouri & that I had a sword run through the hearts of the people that I wanted to kill & put out of the way. I wont sware out a warrent against them for I don’t fear any of them. They would not scare of an old setting hen. I intend to publish all the iniquity that I know of. If I am guilty I am ready to bear it. Their is honor among enemies. I am willing to do any thing for the good of the people. I will give the names of one of the gentleman who have divulged the plot. His name is Eaton. He will sware to it. He is a bold fellow. Jackson said a Smith should not be alive 2 weeks not over two months any how. As concerning the Character of these men I will say nothing about it now but If I hear any thing more from them on this subject I will tell what I know about them.”

Joseph’s informants were M.G. Eaton and Abiathar Williams (see Times and Seasons, 15 May 1844, 541)—not Charles Stoddard, Dennison Harris, or Robert Scott. But I suppose, if the folklore is elevating and ennobling in its tendency, then it is necessarily true ;)

So, even in the 1880s they understood that some truths are not very useful, but some untruths can be uplifting.

What I wonder is how the story came to be appropriated by the Stoddard family, when the original, which seems pretty obviously made up, doesn’t have anything to do with Charles Stoddard or his family.  But it seems fairly common for family histories to insert themselves, Forrest Gump-like, into important events based on proximity. In other words, the Stoddards were in Nauvoo during the time of Joseph Smith’s murder, so surely they had a part in defending the prophet.

Several years ago, I read a biography of Frederick G. Williams called After One Hundred Years, published in the 1940s. It was written by a woman named Nancy Williams, who was a Williams by marriage only. She devotes an entire chapter to the Williamses’ likely involvement in the War of 1812, describing battles and ships and heroism. Only there is absolutely no evdience that anyone in the Williams family took part in that war. True, they lived in Kirtland, Ohio, which was near the Great Lakes, and William Wheeler Williams, Frederick’s father, had been involved in shipping on the lakes at one time. But there’s nothing to suggest he or anyone else in the family fought in the war, let alone served with heroic distinction. Basically, then, Mrs. Williams decided that, because he was near the action, William must have been involved. I think that’s the same thing that has happened with the Stoddard family. Maybe Charles was part of the Whistling and Whittling Brigade, or maybe he knew Joseph Smith or William Law personally Who knows?

P.S. For what it’s worth, here is an excerpt from a letter William Law wrote to Isaac Hill on 20 July 1844:

. . . My family and myself are all well, and have enjoyed good health and peace since we left Nauvoo, although the events which have transpired Since, were very shocking to my feeling/s\ yet, as they \(J&H)/ brought it upon themselves, and I used my influence to prevent any outrage Even from the Commencement of the Excitement, believing that the Civil Law had power to Expose iniquity, and punish the wicked I say Consequently, I look on Calmly, and while the wicked slay the wicked, I believe I can see the hand of a blasphemed God stretched out in judgment, the cries of inocence and virtue have ascended up before the throne of God, and he has taken Sudden vengeance.
I am as ever—
Respectfully Yours,
Wm. Law.

(William Law letter to Isaac Hill, 20 July 1844, MS 3473, CHL)

This sounds more like the William Law known from his actual words and actions. While I find his apparent satisfaction with the “vengeance” of God to be more than a little distasteful, he isn’t the foul-mouthed drunkard of the Stoddard and Harris accounts. You would think that, after everything that happened, if William Law had really conspired to kill Joseph Smith, he would have been just a little more proud of his accomplishment. What I find revealing is that Law basically left Mormonism and the Mormons alone after the deaths of Joseph and Hyrum Smith. Although he had plenty of opportunities to “expose” and denounce the LDS church later, he never spoke publicly about it until some 40 years later, when he was interviewed about his involvement with the Latter-day Saint movement.  You can read what he said in “Three Letters from William Law on Mormonism.” [Please note that my link is not an endorsement of Maze Ministry. I’m only linking to it because it’s the complete text.]

 


Of Ngrams and Diaries

March 18, 2015

Pretty much this whole post will be based on (OK, plagiarized from) a thread I saw this morning on a message board. Still, it’s fascinating, and I thought I should draw attention to it.

Yesterday’s Deseret News had an article entitled 13 Little-Known Facts about Joseph Smith. Number 6 on the list was a reported “near-death experience” Joseph had thanks to arch-apostate William Law.

“Apostate William Law attempted to kill Joseph and fired a pistol at him six times at close range. It misfired six times, and he then pointed it at a post and all six shots discharged properly.” Charles H. Stoddard, “Remembering Joseph,” 74

Just as the poster on the message board, I was perplexed because I had never heard of this, and it seemed pretty counter to William Law’s character and personality. So, I looked up the references the poster had cited, and I found a diary that Charles Stoddard’s mother, Sarah, had written between 1843 and 1844. Here’s the entire diary:

Dear Diary,

Charles stopped in for a few minutes today. Said Sister Emma was worried about the prophet being arrested so frequently. This is the umpteenth time in the past few months. Of course they never can hold him for any length of time since he isn’t guilty of any of the charges brought against him. We hear rumors of more violent mob action and the rumors seem more persistent. Perhaps that is why Sister Emma is worried.

October 1843

Charles is surely privileged to have the opportunity of being so closely associated with the prophet and sister Emma. He admires and loves them both. The prophet is such a kindly man though Charles says he has seen his anger rise. All he has to contend with, is it any wonder? Wrathful outsiders as well as weak and selfish people right among our own ranks. Being a prophet of the Lord, I guess, makes him able to deal with all those whom he comes in contact in a just and noble way. There are many among us who would gladly give our lives that the prophet might be spared the humiliations he has to undergo at the hands of the so-called “law.” Seems like people either love the prophet or hate him. Suppose that is because he is such a great man – yes, for he is our prophet.

December 1843

Charles had a dreadful experience last night. Porter Rockwell escaped from jail. He was taken there on mistaken identity of the prophet. When the sheriff finally discovered the mistake, he kept Porter in jail to teach him a lesson, so he said. Many months he was unjustly held. They gave him very meager fare, mostly just bread and water. He was terribly thin and weakened; his hair was long and matted with filth and his body swarming with lice. Not once did they give him anything with which to clean himself, but left him to stench in his own dirt. Charles said the prophet cried when he saw Brother Rockwell and he hugged him in spite of his condition like he was a beloved child. Charles and Brother Richards helped to clean Brother Rockwell after they had burned the rags he had one time called clothes. They had a terrible time with his hair; it was so snarled and filthy. They had decided the best thing to do was to shave his head but the prophet intervened and then he promised Brother Rockwell that as long as he did not cut his hair our enemies would have no power over him. Porter Rockwell is an uncouth man, even vile of tongue but the prophet discerns men for what they are inside and though Charles says he reprimands Brother Rockwell at times for his bad language he still loves and respects him and trusts him as much as he does anyone, even the apostles.

January 1844

Charles is young to be given so much responsibility (just turned 14), but his experiences have made him old for his years. I hate to see Charles put in such a precarious position but if this is where the prophet thinks he can be of greatest service then it must be so. I have never doubted but what the prophet knows what is best for us all. May my faith ever be as strong as it is now though we have very little of worldly goods having moved from New Jersey to Ohio to Nauvoo in so short a time. Still our physical needs are provided. We feel rich in the spirit and our faith in God and in His church grows with each passing day. But back to Charles. Mr. William Law is known to be wanting a houseboy, so the prophet has told our son to take the position and to keep his eyes and ears open. The prophet feels Mr. Law bodes only evil to him and to the Church, him being so resentful to the prophet and having been excommunicated.

February 1844

Charles doesn’t like his work at the Laws. He says the riffraff of Nauvoo drink and carouse all night and lay plans for what unpleasant things they can do to the Mormons in general and the prophet in particular. The boy looks tired, up most of the night so he can keep the prophet posted on Mr. Law’s plans and then working by day. He’s growing so fast right now, too, and should be getting his rest.

April 1844

Charles had another faith promoting experience. Early this morning, even while the darkness still hemmed out the light of day, Mr. Law, after he had been drinking and planning with his associates through the night, got Charles out of bed to clean and oil his gun for he said he was going to shoot the prophet, only William Law called him “old Joe Smith.” Poor Charles was frightened beyond description but Mr. Law stood over him and prodded him with his foot when Charles hesitated through fright and anxiety. Finally when Mr. Law was satisfied with the way the gun was working, he put one bullet in. He boasted that he could kill the prophet with one shot and sent Charles to bring the prophet.

He ran as fast as he could and delivered the message but begged the prophet not to go to Mr. Law’s as Mr. Law was drunk and Charles was afraid he would carry though on his threat to shoot the prophet in cold blood. In spite of Charles’ protestations the prophet rose from bed and dressed.

It was breaking dawn by this time. As they walked the few blocks from the mansion house to the Law residence the prophet reassured Charles that no harm would come to him that day. Charles was frightened and he said it kept racing through his mind “I am the one that cleaned the gun that is going to be used to kill the prophet” until he was sick with fear. The prophet in a final attempt to calm my dear son uttered the fateful words, “Mr. Law may some day kill me, Charles, but it won’t be today’

As they approached their destination Mr. Law came staggering out of the house and his only greeting was angry boasts of what he intended to do. The prophet said kindly and unafraid, “You sent for me, Mr. Law?” to which Mr. Law replied with oaths that he had and that he was now going to do Nauvoo, Illinois, and indeed the whole world a great favor by disposing of the prophet with one shot.

Calmly the prophet unbuttoned his shirt and bared his chest, then said, “I’m ready now, Mr. Law.” Charles said at this point he nearly fainted. Fear strangled him until he was speechless and paralyzed, unable to move a muscle.

Mr. Law paced a few steps, turned, aimed, and pressed the trigger. There was complete silence, then the air rang with profanity and Mr. Law turned on Charles, accusing him of fixing the gun so it would not go off and threatening to kill even Charles, my innocent, frightened, but faithful son. The prophet, to divert Mr. Law’s blame of Charles suggested that a can be placed on the fence post for Mr. Law to take a practice shot. Relieved, Charles ran for a can and laid it on its side on the post. Mr Law paced back, took aim and fired. His ‘one shot’ streaked through the exact center of the bottom of that can. Mr. Law is well-known for his marksmanship even when drunk. Even Mr. Law was quiet as if stunned.

The prophet buttoned up his shirt, gave Charles a meaningful look and then said, “If you are finished with me now, Mr. Law, I have other things needing to be done. Good morning.”

At first glance it seems fairly straightforward: Joseph Smith apparently hired a teenaged Charles Stoddard to work at William Law’s house and “keep the prophet posted” about William Law’s nefarious plans. And this boy witnessed William Law’s attempt to kill Joseph Smith, as well as the prophet’s fearless response.

But, an LDS friend said elsewhere, “I am quite certain that this entry—and indeed the whole diary—is a forgery.” He summarizes his reasons as follows:

If you check out the whole diary (which is suspiciously short) I think you’ll notice that it reads like bad fiction. Nothing in it is credible. All of the characters are broadly drawn caricatures (especially William Law, who, unlike his real-life counterpart, is here a foul-mouthed drunkard). I think it was probably written in the early 20th century, based on expressions like “umpteenth” (which first came into use around the turn of the 20th century and gained prominence after WW1), “keep your eyes and ears open”, and “faith promoting experience” (which, as far as I can tell, did not enter the Mormon lexicon until the 1880s). “Keep him posted” also seems out of place for 1844.

Robert H. Daines described the provenance of the diary in a 2000 BYU devotional: “I should like to share with you an entry from the diary of my great-great grandmother. This is a record of a little-known experience of the Prophet Joseph—little known because this diary was lost for 30 to 40 years in my mother’s home in New Jersey. It was only rediscovered as they were preparing to move back to Utah in the late 1970s. This is a diary entry of Sister Sarah Stoddard.” My guess is that it was created ca. 1920-1930.

Admittedly, I am not that clever to have thought of the word usage, but he’s right that some of the words and phrases did not arise in the English language until much later than 1844. “Umpteenth,” for example, dates to World War I.

I’d never used Google’s Ngram Viewer before, but it can tell you how often a word is used over time, based on its text database of books. For example, we can chart when the following words became widely used in English:

In short, I learned something, and not just that the account of William Law trying to shoot Joseph Smith is likely bogus. I think I could have fun with the Ngram Viewer.

 

 


Concise Dictionary of Mormonism So Far …

March 17, 2015

A while back I started putting together a satiric “Concise Dictionary of Mormonism,” sort of a take-off on Bruce R. McConkie’s “Mormon Doctrine,” though more concise and with less racism. I got distracted and never finished, but I did promise some friends I would finish. So, I will get back on it. In the meantime, here are the entries so far:

A
B
C
D
E
F
G
H
I
J
K
L
M (part 1)
M (part 2)
N
O


52 Questions That Might Lead You to Mormonism

March 16, 2015

  1. Why does God give some people brown skin?
  2. How many shares does God want me to buy in a hotel and at what price?
  3. What is my “little factory,” and what does it mean to tamper with it?
  4. What does it mean to be “used up”?
  5. What’s so special about Missouri?
  6. Where does the sun get its light?
  7. Was Martin Luther King part of a Communist conspiracy?
  8. Why do Native Americans look so much like Jews?
  9. If a spirit appears to me, how can I tell it’s an angel and not a demon?
  10. If God had a couple of billion dollars sitting around, what would he do with it?
  11. What kind of underwear does God want me to wear?
  12. What is the Egyptian word for the Sun?
  13. Is it wrong to try to have a personal relationship with Jesus?
  14. Is a seer stone used for finding buried treasure, translating scripture, or both?
  15. I’m a married man, and I’d like to have sex with another woman without my wife finding out about it. Is that OK with God?
  16. Is there some kind of secret handshake you need to get into heaven?
  17. Should clergy be paid, or only the ones at the top of the hierarchy?
  18. Is this man a dodo?
  19. To reach the “tree of life” and everlasting joy, are we supposed to hold onto an iron rod or a rope?
  20. Does God preserve scriptural records for 1,400 years so that eventually they will be translated by someone who doesn’t actually use them in the translation?
  21. Can we get rid of the italicized words in the King James Bible?
  22. Are gay people happier if they remain celibate?
  23. Should churches ever apologize for their mistakes?
  24. I like to re-enact disastrous journeys, such as that of the Donner party. Where can I find likeminded people?
  25. Does God have a penis?
  26. Does the Godhead consist of 2 or 3 personages?
  27. Should people of different races marry each other?
  28. In the nineteenth century, how common was it for a married man in his late thirties to marry a teenager without his wife’s knowledge or consent?
  29. Is it OK with God for prophets to borrow millions of dollars from the funds of the true church?
  30. When the Lord establishes a bank through His prophet, how long should we expect it to stay in business?
  31. What does “carnal intercourse” mean?
  32. If I have to choose between following my conscience or obeying a religious leader, which one should I choose?
  33. How many earrings are appropriate in each ear?
  34. If I do an act of charity, should I do it quietly or should I do something to attract attention to myself, such as wearing a bright yellow shirt?
  35. If the natural man is an enemy to God, does that mean gays are God’s friends because their desires are unnatural?
  36. Which one was Jesus: Quetzalcoatl or Wiracocha?
  37. How, where, and when did Arthur Patton die?
  38. Where can I find an organization that will help me find happiness in conformity?
  39. What were Joseph Smith and Fanny Alger doing in the barn?
  40. When is steel not actually steel?
  41. Is “ofin Zimim ezmon E, Zu onis i f s veris etzer ensvonis vineris” Hebrew?
  42. Is it ever OK to criticize a religious leader?
  43. Is Anubis a slave?
  44. Does God approve of oral sex?
  45. Is it ever appropriate to lie to the police?
  46. Where does God live?
  47. Are organizations that have secret rites and oaths good or bad?
  48. Should women have an education and career, or should they stay home and have lots of babies?
  49. If the Holy Spirit tells me to kill someone, should I use a sword or a knife?
  50. Are there any moral absolutes?
  51. How badly do I need to believe in things that are not so?

Bonus question: Which is worse: decaffeinated coffee or caffeinated soda?

If you enjoyed this list, you might also like the Concise Dictionary of Mormonism.


Melissa Lott Willes: A Different Story

March 13, 2015

I stumbled across this account from Joseph Smith III of an interview he had with Melissa Lott Willes (he has her last name as “Willis”) in Lehi, Utah, in 1885. It’s strikingly different from Melissa’s testimony in the Temple Lot case, and it differs substantially from her own account of the interview. In the Temple Lot testimony, she specifically denies Smith’s version of the interview, saying that what she told him was the same as what she testified to under oath. I will make no comment about the veracity of Smith’s account other than to note the careful construction of his questions. And I will say that his portrayal of a weepy, timid woman contrasts rather sharply with the quick-witted and self-confident woman reflected in the court testimony.

In the evening we held a service in the Music Hall of the city [Lehi, Utah]. We went early to the room and were met and welcomed by a number of our own members, as well as other friends and citizens. In chatting before the services somebody came and told me that Mrs. Ira Willis was present. I referred to this woman in the early part of these Memoirs.

This news was of interest for I had frequently been told that she, who used to be Melissa Lott, claimed to have been a wife to my father and would so testify, and that I would not dare to visit and interview her for she would tell me unwelcome things. I had, of course, seen the affidavits which she and others made, published by Joseph F. Smith to bolster up his statement that Father had more wives than one.

I at once went to Mrs. Willis, was introduced, and promptly asked the privilege of calling upon her for an interview. This permission she very cordially granted. (The Memoirs of President Joseph Smith III (1832-1914), p.244)

By appointment I went to the home of Mrs. Willis at ten o’clock on the Tuesday following our meeting in the Music Hall. As I have already stated in connection with this woman, she was a daughter of Cornelius P. Lott, a man who had come to Nauvoo from the East, his family consisting of wife, sons John and baby Peter, and daughters Melissa, Martha, Mary, and Alzina. They lived in a house on the farm belonging to Father, just east of the city, and I knew them all in a general way. I was fairly well acquainted with Melissa and with her history and movements up to the time of their departure from Nauvoo, when they all emigrated to Utah.

Melissa married Ira Willis, as I have related—a kind, shrewd Yankee and most excellent man. I had heard that they had had two sons, but when I went to call on her she was living alone. One son had died as he approached manhood, and the husband and the other son had together met death in an accident occurring when they were coming down from the mountains with a load of wood. So she was left a widow and childless at the same time.

Her home was a one-room cottage, and when bidden to enter I found her sitting by the fireside preparing things for the midday meal. It was an old-fashioned fireplace such as I was used to seeing, with broad hearth and wide-throated chimney in which were the traditional hooks to support the kettles swung over the fire, the big dogs on which the logs rested, and nearby the fireshovel, tongs, and poker. Ira Willis had always been a thrifty and handy man-of-all-work and loved to make and provide many conveniences and accessories for his home. I have told how Ira Willis once released my tongue from a frosty axe by pouring warm water on the imprisoned member. He had a hearty laugh at my expense, and for several hours I nursed an extra mouthful of swollen tongue. Mother too had laughed at the occurrence when she heard of it and told me it would be well for me if I could learn some things without trying too many experiments for myself! I have never forgotten that instance and even today, as I retell the story, my stenographer and I have had a hearty laugh over the predicament of an excited boy rushing into the house with his tongue glued to a frosted axe!

I was well received by Mrs. Willis whom I knew by the old familiar name of Melissa. I told her I had a great desire to talk with her for I had been informed she knew things I would not dare to question her about. I said I wanted to know the truth, whatever it was, and believed that in answer to my questions she would be willing to tell me what she knew.

She answered that she would be glad to grant the interview, but explained that some unexpected company was coming for lunch and she would prefer if I could call in the afternoon instead, when she would be more at liberty and with leisure for a conversation. Of course this was agreeable to me, and after exchanging a few reminiscences I left her.

Returning in the afternoon I found her guests had gone, and she was ready for a chat, willing, as she said, to answer any question I would ask about conditions in Nauvoo of which she had any knowledge. I began by asking:

“Did you know of the teaching of plural marriage or polygamy at Nauvoo?”

“I had heard of it in private but not publicly.”

“Did you know of any woman having been married to, my father and living with him as his wife, besides my mother?”

“No; and nothing of the kind occurred to my knowledge.”

“Do you have any reason to believe such a thing took place and that my mother knew of there being another woman besides herself who was wife to my father?”

“No,” quite emphatically, “I am sure she did not.”

“Now, Melissa, I have been told that there were women, other than my mother, who were married to my father and lived with him as his wife, and that my mother knew it. How about it?”

She answered rather tremulously, “If there was anything of that kind going on you may be sure that your mother knew nothing about it.”

I then asked her what was her opinion of my mother’s character for truth and veracity. She replied that she considered my mother one of the noblest women in the world, and that she had known her well and knew her to be as good and truthful a woman as ever lived.

“Then you think I would be justified in believing what my mother told me?”

“Yes, indeed, for she would not lie to you.”

“Well, Melissa, my mother told me that my father had never had any wife other than herself, had never had any connection with any other woman as a wife, and was never married to any woman other than herself, with her consent or knowledge, or in any manner whatsoever. Do you consider I am justified in believing her?”

Without hesitation she answered, “If your mother told you any such thing as that you may depend upon what she said and feel sure she was telling the truth, and that she knew nothing about any such state of affairs. Yes, you would be entirely justified in believing her.”

Our conversation continued for some time. Finally I asked, plainly, “Melissa, will you tell me just what was your relation to my father, if any?”

She arose, went to a shelf, and returned with a Bible which she opened at the family record pages and showed me a line written there in a scrawling handwriting:

“Married my daughter Melissa to Prophet Joseph Smith—” giving the date, which I seem to remember as late in 1843.

I looked closely at the handwriting and examined the book and other entries carefully. Then I asked:

“Who were present when this marriage took place—if marriage it may be called?”

“No one but your father and myself.”

“Was my mother there?”

“No, sir.”

“Was there no witness there?”

“No, sir.”

“Where did it occur?”

“At the house on the farm.”

“And my mother knew nothing about it, before or after?”

“No, sir.”

“Did you ever live with my father as his wife, in the Mansion House in Nauvoo, as has been claimed?”

“No, sir.”

“Did you ever live with him as his wife anywhere?” I persisted.

At this point she began to cry, and said, “No, I never did; but you have no business asking me such questions. I had a great regard and respect for both your father and your mother. I do not like to talk about these things.”

“Well, Melissa, I have repeatedly been told that you have stated that you were married to my father and lived with him as his wife and that my mother knew of it. Now you tell me you never did live with him as his wife although claiming: to have been married to him. You tell me there was no one present at that purported marriage except the three of you and that my mother knew nothing about such an alliance. Frankly, I am at a loss to know just what you would have me believe about you.”

I was about to make still closer inquiries in order to find out if she ever had any relations of any sort with my father other than the ordinary relations that may properly exist between such persons under the usual conditions of social procedure, when just then there came a rap on the door, and in walked her sisters Mary and Alzina.

Alzina lived rather near Melissa, but Mary, the older, was living some twenty-five or thirty miles away. Hearing I was in Lehi she had hitched up her team andt come to see me, stopping at Alzina’s on the way and bringing her along.

They expressed great pleasure in meeting me again, and I was glad to see them. Our talk was general for a while, for their entrance had changed my line of inquiry somewhat. Then, urged to put to Melissa a question of importance, I asked:

“Melissa, do you know where I can find a brother or a sister, child or children of my father, born to him by some woman other than my mother—in Illinois, Utah, or anywhere else?”

She answered that she did not, whereupon Mary broke in and said:

“No, Brother Joseph, for there isn’t any!”

Then she went on to say, “For twelve years I have made it my business to run down every rumor I have heard about the existence of children born to the Prophet by those women who were reputed to have been his wives. I have traveled a good many miles here and there for the purpose of finding out the truth about such statements, and not in one single instance have I ever found them substantiated or any evidence presented that had the least bit of truth in it. I have never been able to find a single child which could possibly have been born to Joseph Smith in plural marriage.”

At this juncture Alzina snapped in with an explosive and characteristic exclamation:

“No, Brother Joseph, there is none, and what’s more, I don’t believe there ever was any chance for one!”

The earnestness of her manner and the snap with which she pointed her remark caused a ripple of laughter among us, in which, however, Melissa did not join. Noticing this, I turned to her and said:

“Melissa, how about it? You hear what your sisters are saying?”

Tears began to trickle down her face as she said, “Yes, Brother Joseph, I hear them.”

“Well, what do you say? Can I believe as they do?”

She drew a deep breath, as if making a sudden decision, and then, with a sigh with lips trembling:

“Yes; you can believe that they are telling you the truth. There was no chance for any children.”

Mary then explained in more detail about certain places she had gone to make inquiries directly of the persons involved (whom she named) and to see the women and the children who, it was stated, were wives and offspring of the Prophet. She said in every instance she proved the report false, either as to the woman claiming to be such a wife or as to children being there as claimed.

I thanked her and the other girls for the statements they had made. Our conversation on this and other topics continued for some time. We recalled many incidents of old times, and I learned from them of the deaths of their parents and the whereabouts and fortunes of others of the family.

I left these sisters feeling well repaid for my persistence in obtaining the interview with Mrs. Willis. In spite of what I had been told, she had neither been able to “face me down” nor to convince me that my father had done reprehensible things which I would be unwilling to believe. Instead, I left her presence and that of her sisters with my previous convictions more firmly established, if such a thing were possible. The interview had convinced me that the statement made in an affidavit of this Melissa Lott Willis, published by Joseph F. Smith along with others of similar import, to the effect that she had been married to Joseph Smith, was not true, provided the word married be construed as conveying the right of living together as man and wife, a relation she had unequivocally denied in my presence. I was convinced that wherever the word married or sealed occurred in such testimonials regarding my father it meant nothing more than that possibly those women had gone through some ceremony or covenant which they intended as an arrangement for association in the world to come, and could by no means have any reference whatever to marital rights in the flesh.

I was also convinced from the statements of Mrs. Willis that the entry in the Bible which she showed to me was a line written by her father, or some other person, recording an untruth. When I asked her in plain language how it happened she had not lived with my father as his wife if she had really been married to him, she had answered in equally plain language, that she had not lived with him in that manner because it was not right that she should do so.

I had made up my mind when I went to Utah that whenever and wherever I found opportunity I would converse with those women who had claimed, or were reputed, to be wives of my father— wives in polygamy, plural marriage, celestial, sealed, or any kind of arrangement—and in so doing I would subject them to as severe a cross examination as was within my power, to get as near as possible to the actual truth of the circumstances and the reports. It was for this reason I had called upon this woman, and I should have questioned her still further and in a more specific manner had not the entrance of her sisters turned the trend of conversation in a measure.

After my visit south, to Beaver, we passed through Lehi again on our way back to Salt Lake City, at which time I tried to have another conversation with Mrs. Willis, but learned she was not at home. I knew it would have been entirely useless to question her in the presence of an elder of their church as she would either evade my questions or refuse utterly to answer. Indeed, it is possible she may have been so far under domination and surveillance as to have stated, in such a contingency, that which was not true. As it was, I felt I had secured truthful statements from her, for she had betrayed some real depths of emotion as we conversed. She had stated that I might believe what my mother had told me for she regarded my mother as an honest, upright woman who was absolutely truthful. She had also stated that notwithstanding the “marriage” entry scribbled in her Bible, purported to be written by her father, she had not lived with Joseph Smith as his wife, believing it was “not right” to do so, and further, that he had never urged her to do so. I had also learned from her and her sisters that so far as their knowledge went there had been no issue of any polygamous marriages made by Joseph Smith, such as had been alleged. (The Memoirs of President Joseph Smith III (1832-1914), pp. 245-246)


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